Crossing my Twitter timeline yesterday was a piece I might not have ordinarily encountered. ‘From episodic to continuous change’.
by James Hutchinson of the University of Exeter sets out to reflect on “key foundations for supporting continuous improvement rather than on the detail of the process itself.” It occurred to me that if universities are at all concerned with reputation management, pieces like this might cause a few of the best academics, students and professional staff to press pause on their online applications.
As I said on Twitter, this is one of the most vacuous examples of management discourse I have seen in a while. I say ‘in a while’ because I have been outside of universities for over two years now and so my exposure is more limited, but oh, how I’ve missed it.
As regular readers of this blog may know, Helen Sauntson and I have co-authored a forthcoming book: Academic Irregularities which seeks to expose underlying power relations within universities as revealed by the discourse of management. The piece on change management made me itch to get out the red pen and annotate some familiar managerial themes. Let me offer a critical analysis of precisely why this piece is so alienating, and so damaging of an institution’s reputation before the majority of academics.
Frequently, in university managerial discourse, we see the employment of abstract nouns with shape-shifting definitions. Word of the week is nebulous, and that is exactly what we find here. Such words have been designated by Urcioli (2000: 4) as Strategically Deployable Shifters (SDS). She defines SDSs as follows:
[…] a lexical item or expression deployed in different discursive fields so that, in effect, people using term X in a referring expression in field A are engaged in a different pragmatic activity from those using the formally identified term X in a referring expression in field B. The salient interpretation of the term depends on the relation of its user to its audience and so shifts with context.
SDSs, then, can mean one thing to one person and something else to another. In this piece we notice a lot of vague abstract terms: improvement, performance, and change itself. They may change meaning entirely when reflecting one set of values or another. Empowered will make some academics shudder.
Change is always presented as something that must be managed and controlled by an elite cadre of consultants, or alternatively, by a highly-paid member of the senior management team. The author of the piece announces himself as Director of the Strategic Delivery Unit at the University of Exeter, and, notwithstanding a nod towards change as requiring development and feedback rather than fait accompli’, it is evident that it will be led , top-down, by ‘talented managers and team’, presumably made up of ‘change agents’. They will use ‘intelligent business tools’, ‘performance dashboards’ all conforming to the ‘change blueprint’. I’ve seen one, and its prescriptions were completely disregarded whenever it came to implementing change.
Change is presented as something which will be complicated and difficult, but inevitable and desirable. Another presupposition is that change must be continuous and institution-wide, not episodic, contingent, and definitely not locally, slowly or organically. The effects of continuous change are documented by Martin Parker in his brilliant 2014 article entitled, University Ltd: Changing a business school. Parker points out that when staff encounter problems with institutional change, or when its sheer speed is found to cause unacceptable stress, it is pointed out that unhappiness is inevitable at times of change. The solution is always framed as enhancing communication, implying that if managers just raised the volume a little, the message would be received less reluctantly. And change is, of course, always successful in this world.
In this model, all change is seen as revolutionary and self-evidently a good thing, often presented as ‘shaking things up’. Resistance from those with institutional memory (who are often in a position to identify the futility of the change, or its circularity) is framed in terms of their self-interest and intransigence. Indeed, as Parker points out, the very fact of staff leaving, retiring or falling ill with stress is often, in this managerial fiction of change, defended by the institution as evidence that change is both necessary and effective (2014: 288).
As we learn from James Hutchinson, “continuous improvement is a way of working’. But is it too much to ask, as we head over the Brexit cliff, that change is debated and justified in terms which go beyond the discourse of the pep rally? And that those with institutional memory are consulted ? This would at least help institutions avoid
change being decontextualized from any previous history. Parker comments on the strange process of legitimation: ‘[I]t was necessary to ensure that the past was not available as a valid position from which to criticize the present. In other words, the past needs to be articulated as a problem, as something that needs to be escaped from’ (2014: 287).
If they try, and don’t meet resistance, they might actually do it. Please, readers, stay vigilant, and don’t be afraid to offer your thoughts when the consultation phase of the ‘change blueprint, comes your way.
Parker, Martin. 2014. University, Ltd: Changing a business school . Organization. vol 21., pp. 281-292 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1350508413502646?journalCode=orga
Urciuoli, Bonnie. 2000. Strategically Deployable Shifters In College Marketing, or just what do they mean by “skills” and “leadership” and “multiculturalism”? Language and Culture, Symposium 6, Binghampton University. http://language-culture.binghamton.edu/symposia/6/index.html